The Bubbler @ Jam Street
By Cathy Crabb
Directed by Phil Dennison
With Neil Bell (Peter) and Daniel Street-Brown (Paul)

“How will they put on a play in Jam Street? – It’s tiny!”

With its action played out entirely inside a bar, and only two players (a barman and a punter), The Bubbler by Cathy Crabb lends itself perfectly to being staged in a pub.

Jam Street is a small venue, but its rectangular simplicity, back-wall bar, and absence of fixed seating make it fairly well-suited to this production’s demands.

On the night, our chairs were arranged facing the bar, with a central aisle, allowing ‘Peter the punter’ to enter (and exit) behind us using the real door.

The play opens in an ‘empty’ bar: Paul the barman is reading his paper; there’s music playing in the background; all is calm.

Suddenly the door flies open (behind us) and slams!

Like a whirlwind, a giant strides in, breathing heavily. Towering over us in the small space, he marches up to the bar and then paces back and forth in furious agitation:

“Fucking scroats!” he bellows.

Members of the audience giggle nervously; Paul the barman is unruffled.

We soon learn that Peter’s rage is, superficially at least, provoked by the plight of his customers; he describes them in a stream of acid vitriol which is simultaneously hideous and hilarious.

Paul the barman does his best to humour Peter, who begins to describe his unfortunate punters individually; most memorably, the poor man with “Arms like a lattice pie.”

When Paul points out the pathos in these accounts, Peter protests that if he starts feeling sorry for them, he won’t be able to make money.

Paul responds; “Well you would… …you just have to think that you are doing them a favour – even though they are annoying, and you don’t share their views, you just serve them and do your best to see a good side to them.”

You just serve them.
The phrase did not quite follow the flow of the dialogue. Why had the writer shoe-horned it in there?

‘Serving others’ is a central tenet of Christianity… but also of service industry commerce, which makes the phrase ambiguous.

The lines “I wouldn’t be able to make money out of them, would I?” “Well you would…” seem to hint at something sinister. Were we about to be treated to Paul’s Guide to Ethical Exploitation?

But Paul the barman doesn’t appear to be leading us down any tricky paths; and by contrast with Peter, he only has postive things to say about his customers.

One in particular, who has left an umbrella in the bar by accident, becomes the focus of the conversation – a musician, Tony Rabonni, whom Peter sarcastically christens ‘Umber-ella Man’.

Paul’s admiring description of Tony seems to trigger something like professional jealousy in Peter, who makes it his mission, from then on in, to prove that Paul’s customers are no better than his own.

But Tony Rabonni seems to be a man without obvious flaws… and his name keeps cropping up. Though absent, his character is present in spirit as it were, represented on stage by his forgotten umbrella… a constant goad to Peter.

Presently, the discussion switches to what Paul will do on his day off. The gallery is mentioned and Paul is reminded of a painting which he’s seen there. As he describes it in detail, the mood shifts; he emerges from behind the bar, the room darkens and he is spot-lit. Briefly, Paul has our full attention; it’s a spine-tingling moment. But when the lights come back up, Peter’s effortless dominance resumes.

Cathy Crabb excels when she writes for Peter, and Neil Bell’s embodiment of the role is a tour-de-force. Peter’s voice does justice to the ascerbic, aggressive, deeply cynical humour which thrives in this city… a symptom perhaps of our venerable local tradition of human exploitation on an industrial scale. His dark and violent wit, his rage, his heartless world-view and his occasional flashes of self-doubt make him complex and compelling to watch.

I want to see more of this character… I want to see him in his workplace, interacting with the poor souls who are unlucky enough to stumble into his sphere of influence. Peter the punter is as entertaining as Gene Hunt from Life On Mars, only MUCH more despicable.

By comparison, Paul the barman is, perhaps inevitably, less charismatic; Daniel Street-Brown’s performance is engaging and grounded, but his verbal arsenal does not bristle in the same way that Peter’s does and his physical presence is less imposing.

The themes of The Bubbler are universal but many of the references are specific to Manchester: India House, The Shambles, Chethams Library, Bridgewater Hall, Heaton Park… but you wouldn’t need to know these places to follow the narrative.

Slides are used during the performance to display scene titles, just as in an old silent film. William Blake’s illustrations of John Milton’s Paradise Lost are also projected, providing clues to some of the inspiration behind the text.

The twist in the tale of this story is very well orchestrated… I don’t want to spoil it. You need to experience a performance of The Bubbler yourself to find out what happens…

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.

Attributed to Lord Bowen